Whenever you need maintenance for your car’s brakes, you might think that the work completed begins and ends with the pads and rotors, failing to consider your car’s brake fluid. Unless you’re driving a very old car with mechanical brakes (which, today, would mean a car nearly a century old), your braking system relies on hydraulic fluid pressure to operate properly, and it does, in fact, need periodic changes.
Fluid Change Intervals
How often your vehicle’s brake fluid requires attention depends on the kind of car you drive. Check your owner’s manual to see what its particular maintenance schedule specifies. It may be a time limit, such as two or three years, or it could be a matter of reaching a certain mileage, typically 20,000 to 45,000 miles.
Signs It’s Time to Change Your Brake Fluid
Regardless of the proper fluid change intervals and whether you’ve hit the appropriate time limit or mileage threshold, you may need to change the fluid based on one of the following signs:
1. Your Brakes Aren’t as Effective as Usual
While most brake performance issues will likely be due to the pads or rotors, the brake fluid can be the culprit, too. Brake fluid becomes less efficient over time and can pick up harmful contaminants that will damage the system. If your brake fluid is the problem, a flush should restore your brakes’ performance.
2. Your Brakes Feel Squishy
Your brakes rely on a specific fluid pressure for the best performance, so if your brake pedal provides less resistance than normal and feels as if it’s mounted to a sponge, it can mean your fluid level is low and that there is air in the system.
3. Applying the Brakes Causes Strange Smells
You might notice a burning smell after hard braking, and that is often caused by burnt-out fluid. Find a place to park and let your brakes cool down, then schedule a brake fluid change as soon as possible.
Checking the Fluid
Search your owner’s manual for the location of your brake master cylinder reservoir. Like most, yours will have a line marking “full,” which should be visible from the outside. If your brake fluid reservoir is opaque, it might rely on a dipstick attached to the cap to gauge the remaining amount.
In any case, check to see that the fluid level reaches the “full” line, then observe its color. It should be pale yellow. If it’s turning dark, that’s a sign you need to change the fluid out.
Let a Shop Handle the Job
While it isn’t too hard to change out your brake fluid with a few simple tools, it’s the old fluid that poses a problem. Repair shops can safely dispose of toxic substances, such as used brake fluid, while the average person might not have easy access to a disposal site. Stay on top of your brake fluid’s health, adhere to the maintenance schedules, and continue being able to stop safely.
Summary: While it’s easy to ignore brake fluid as a maintenance item, it’s incredibly important. Without changing the fluid at manufacturer-specified intervals, brakes can stop working properly or even entirely.